What is innovation in early education and why is it crucial?
The term “innovation” can conjure images of Silicon Valley, product pitches, dramatically new ideas for solving problems, and, ultimately, disrupting the status quo. Today, it’s a buzzword used in meeting after meeting — and in strategic plans to inspire change and improvement. It’s exciting for many reasons.
What can be more challenging, though, is to think about this notion of innovation in the context of fields where advancement largely depends upon building capacity among adults, to improve relationships and interactions among people. Take, for example, the field of early education, where improving teaching and care practices are a linchpin to improving quality. Given that only two in 10 children have access to a high-quality early education setting in the U.S., it is critical that the field acknowledge and address the need for new ideas and refreshing thinking. And yet, for a veteran early education leader, the word “innovation” might generate connotations quite different from inspiration and transformation; it might suggest the need yet again for something new and different — starting over, working harder and considering another set of models. Leaders at all levels can easily be caught between wanting to improve practice while avoiding initiative fatigue among their staff.
In this new era of innovation, however, it’s important not to equate innovation with invention, or something altogether new. The notion of innovation has of course, been around for decades—advancement has long been a function of breakthrough ideas applied to human service systems or practices. In fact, the definition of innovation, is two-fold: (1) to introduce something new; and (2) to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products.
When we look to innovate in sectors like early education, where the challenges and demands are consistent over time, and the systems and structures are hard to shift, we focus especially on this second part of the definition, understanding that innovation can take many forms, in addition to this idea of “out-of-the-box thinking.” For example, when educators and leaders have the time and support to notice, reflect, build knowledge and plan, there is opportunity to innovate in meaningful ways. Instead of invention, this process leads to finding something new within the known. This form of innovation — arising from genuine need and local stakeholders — fosters meaningful change rather than forcing a fad.
Consider an early education center that is experiencing a rise in challenging behaviors among the children they serve — a trend that is common given today’s increasing rates of childhood stress and adversity. A single educator in this center might choose to implement a strategy based on some recent training she had, only to grow frustrated and disillusioned should it not work as intended. But if this educator is connected to and supported by other adults, the work does not stop there. She would consult with other educators and, together, they could document patterns of behavior, and responses to the strategy — and then in a model of continuous improvement, tweak the strategy to further tailor it to their context and the children. Eventually, this group of educators might develop a new approach to addressing (and even preventing) challenging behaviors, and one worth sharing with the network of early educators in their city.
There is also plenty of room for innovation in early education to address two of the most enduring challenges in our field — absenteeism and turnover — both described vividly in a recent New York Times Magazine piece on the wage gap in early education. Nationally, there is an estimated 13% turnover of early education staff, and while the rate is lower than previous years, this turnover can exacerbate and trigger other challenges, which in turn lead to greater churn, making correct staffing a huge problem.
For example, states have strict laws for teacher-to-child ratios in the classroom. Massachusetts requires full-day preschool classrooms to have a teacher-to-child ratio of 1:10. This means that when a teacher or key staff member doesn’t show on a given day, or moves on from the position with just a few days’ or weeks’ notice, center directors and network leaders are often left scrambling to move teachers and children around to meet the mandated ratios. The scramble leaves teachers, children, and families faced, sometimes daily, with an unpredictable scenario — children going to new classrooms unexpectedly and/or teachers being shuffled around as though they are interchangeable. This drives further teacher stress and feelings of being undervalued, leading to even more turnover and absenteeism.
In our work in early education settings around the country, we’ve witnessed efforts directed toward mitigating the effects of teacher absenteeism and its associated turbulence. In some cases, the strategy is planned days off, which reduces absenteeism to some degree. But thinking further about innovation, consider if educator support in the form of planned days off was coupled with leadership support in the form of technology to facilitate the daily tracking and management of adult and child schedules and related ratios.
Instead of mental math, guessing and at-random pulling teachers from classrooms, this technology could support center directors to identify patterns and trends — those emerging and established — in scheduling and absenteeism. In real time, the tool would support directors to know exact classroom ratios throughout their sites. Educators could “check-in” and combinations of lead teachers and paraprofessionals can be arranged to comply with regulations, but these decisions would be made in the context of the overall picture to mitigate the impacts of yet another new face for any given child. In the very least, real-time data could curb chaos, effectively communicate decision making and relieve the burden of already required child-attendance tracking. Over time, the patterns in these data might inform new and different approaches to, or changes in, the planned days off strategy.
In other cases, as we read in the same New York Times piece, the strategy to address absenteeism and turnover is one focused on professional support and capacity-building — apprenticeships. Long part of effective training in many sectors, including K-12 education, medicine and law, apprenticeships are appealing and, for many reasons, in play in early education. And while not particularly new or innovative, per se, there are ways to think further about innovation within this strategy, such as coupling apprenticeships with acquiring professional credentials and wage increases over time.
While many university systems and states are moving towards credentialing and tiered rates to match the credential, what if there was even more room for growth along these? What if we shifted our way of thinking so that coursework and apprentice hours were not separate and discrete requirements, but rather a connected system so that practice-based learning is aligned with collegiate class discussions? Instead of learning Piagetian theories in lecture halls while practicing hand-washing routines in the preschool, imagine a system where professors and mentor teachers supported and built upon one another’s teaching for deeper learning, and then assessed the quality of classroom interactions and children’s developing skills and competencies — to inform next steps. With this somewhat different perspective and approach, capacity-building among early educators may be even greater — bringing together the what, why and the how for professional success.
While the scenarios and solutions we describe may not carry the glitz or glamour that comes with the likes of a new Apple Watch or the release of the latest iPhone, they each, in their own way, represent innovation at different levels of the early education system. In each one, there is a shift away from the tendency to apply strictly technical solutions to problems that center on adult capacity and from the tendency to adopt yet another new model, ultimately simply adding more to the existing landscape. Instead, in each scenario, the population’s needs and root causes are considered carefully in the context of the problem. Data are used to guide and assess meaningful change — change that leads to the kind of innovation that results in solutions that transform quality.
Nonie K. Lesaux is academic dean and the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Stephanie M. Jones is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate